The Color Purple (***1/2)
By Jon Waterman
Summary – In the early 1900s, a 14-year old Celie has her baby girl taken away from her, by her incestuous father, in order to be disposed of in some way. Heartbroken, she’s desperate to find a way to be free of her abusive father. A chance comes in the form of a suitor named Albert. He’s a more well-to-do African American and takes her hand in marriage, even though he’d rather have Celie’s younger sister, Nettie. Well, life with Albert may not be all that she hoped as she has to adjust to life with his abuses as well as his ban on letting Nettie ever visit again.
Dear God – In all honesty, it’s tough to explain the plot, because so much happens. We’re following Celie’s life through several decades and a lot happens within the 2.5 hours of screen time. Yet, despite that, the film almost feels too short. I’m not familiar with Alice Walker’s novel, but the script is like a highlight (or low-light) reel of key events and much is glossed over too quickly. There are times when certain things happen, like when Shug Avery comes to stay with them, and I wasn’t completely sure what lead to that. Other key themes, like the relationship between Shug and Celie are simply alluded to, but that’s likely not because of time constraints but rather the era in which the movie was made.
Rainbows – Even though the plot is a series of bullet points, it’s still quite fascinating and runs the gamut of emotions. Most of it is on the heavier side, but there is some much needed comic relief, like when Albert tries to make food for Shug and it turns into a slapstick adventure, or when Albert’s son’s love interest Sofia (played wonderfully by Oprah Winfrey) gives anyone their come-uppance.
Color Correction – Steven Spielberg’s direction is interesting, although maybe a tiny obvious at times. In the early parts of the film, he employs a lot of shadows on the wall for people talking (instead of showing them directly), or we see people talking through curtains or windows. There’s almost always something obscuring or filtering Celie’s point of view to some degree. Middle of the film, it’s more straight-forward. Near the end, there is a lot of juxtaposition in the camerawork. Parallels between two different scenes show the same movements, angels, settings and even sounds carry over as they cut back and forth. I understand exactly why it was done, but again, it was maybe a tad obvious.
Biggest Standout – Whoopi Goldberg, known for her stand-up comedy and one-woman shows at this point, is absolutely phenomenal in her first movie. She keeps a lot of that 14-year old childlike attitude and approach to situations without seeming adolescent. Her whole being is a silver lining in a tough world that hasn’t given her a reason to see one. Especially powerful for me was the scene when Shug sings to Celie and she forms tears in her eyes and works hard to avoid showing her growing smile.
Biggest Disappointment – I think the music was too heavy-handed and cheesy. It gave the atmosphere of a more light-hearted ‘50s movie rather than the largely serious drama that was unfolding.
Is It Worth Watching Again? – Yes, I think so. It doesn’t feel as long as the running time indicates, and the performances are a fascinating stitching to a patchwork story. I imagine it might be better served by reading the book first to understand more of the subtleties.
Running Time: 154 min
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Menno Meyjes
Starring: Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Margaret Avery